Damn near a decade gone by like sand in an hourglass. Still no closer to an answer than he had been in the summer of 1899. But time didn’t care for the woes of men, living or dead. Time carried on, as always.
Charles Smith rose in the steamy light of another Saint Denis morning. He was leaving soon, taking a steamer north. Rains Fall had asked him to go north with him and his tribe back in the fall of ‘99, just before the decade had turned over. And Charles had said no, too tied to this goddamn land that had stolen everything from him, least of all himself. He’d dug a false grave in the Ambarino mountainside not too long after that request, and it had still done nothing for his sense of closure. A grave he still visited to make sure the flowers were doing well, along with Susan’s and Hosea’s and Lenny’s and Kieran’s and Sean’s and Davey’s and Jenny’s —
It was time to move on. One last job.
The fight was as it always was, the bookies and the jeering crowd, the racial epithets and the dirty Saint Denis alleyway. Some things never changed. And then there was that voice, distinctively gruff and gravel, missing that youthful arrogance he remembered. John Marston had grown up. And he’d travelled across three states, just because Sadie Adler had told them this was where to find him. Charles had resigned himself to only seeing the former Van der Linde gang members in their graves, and he felt like a man confronted with ghosts. But age had not wrung the stubborn bullheadedness out of John any more than years gone by had healed their shared grief, the brotherhood borne of a wound they both nursed. And so Charles went with him, and he didn’t look back.
A ranch. Dusty and proud and just a mile outside Blackwater, with nothing but a shack and a few trees and plenty of rocks. But it was a ranch. Uncle ribbed John, and John defended his pride, and the lone little shack came down in a pile of rubble and dust and noise, and Charles felt something warm deep in his chest, buried under it’s own decade of detritus.
They built the ranch together — John, Uncle, and Charles; sweating under the sweltering sun of West Elizabeth in August. Every nail, every board, every joist and hinge and shingle was put together by their hands into something resembling home. At night they sat around the campfire with their bedrolls and whiskey and Charles tried not to feel the absence he had been feeling for the last nine years. During the days they worked alongside each other, and it felt so much like days gone by that Charles ached with it. Sometimes he would swear there was a voice, just at the edge of his hearing, ribbing John for dropping the hammer, telling Uncle to quit it with the whining. Sometimes John would roll his eyes at something Uncle said, and it was so god damn familiar that it burned. There was so much left unsaid between the two of them, John and Charles — bloody interrogations and a trail of bodies wearing green, Irish brogues slurred with terror and pain, an empty grave on a mountainside covered in flowers. Charles didn’t think he had it in him to be the one to break that silence, and John didn’t say anything. So he didn’t either.
Abigail came back — came home. Jack was with her, and they even had a dog — Rufus, a yellow lab that was all wagging tail and fierce loyalty and sweet doggy smile. Sadie came by to visit, and John went with her on bounties, despite Abigail’s protests. Uncle took up residence in the Marston’s attic like some strange kind of vampire. Charles stayed too, insisting he was fine sleeping on his bedroll outside, as much as Abigail begged him otherwise. Things settled, and it felt as much like home as anything had in this century. Charles tried not to think about who should have seen it with them.
“We need livestock.” John had said. The bounty money had apparently been good, and so Charles found himself riding into Blackwater on Falmouth beside John on Rachel. The auction yard just outside of Blackwater was near the train station, people coming and going with animals they had bought or sold. They hitched their horses, sure they couldn’t navigate this crowd on horseback. John kept a hand on Charles’s shoulder as they made their way through the crowd, people dodging the six-foot-something wall they made, forging through.
“Let’s start with horses. Can never have too many.” Charles said, steering John to the pens containing horses for sale. They had come looking for chickens and sheep, maybe a cow, so Charles wasn’t sure what made him say that — what did he know about ranching? But John offered no complaint, and it sounded like good enough advice, so the two men took a spot at the fence, eyeing the herd. Mostly riding horses, a lot of Tennessee Walkers and Morgans and Kentucky Saddlers, not much suited for ranch work. Charles was about to say as much when the breath left his body, his eyes going wide. John turned, clearly noticing his change in demeanor, wanting to know why.
“Trouble?” John demanded. Charles stared ahead, unable to believe his eyes, unable to speak. He was afraid to look away. One mare stood apart from the rest, a solid hand taller than the little Saddler gelding nearest to her. She was all black, with white stockings and dapples across her entire body, and a white sickle shaped blaze up the center of her face. Charles only noticed her because she had lifted her head from the pile of hay she was grazing from, pieces of hay dropping from her muzzle. The skin on her muzzle was still pink, in the same spot Arthur used to scratch before offering her a treat. Charles stared, and the mare stared back, both unmoving. She was thin and swaybacked, ewe-necked and under muscled. The years had not been kind to her. Slowly, still not daring to look away, Charles reached into his satchel, pulling out a carrot he kept for Falmouth. He broke off a piece. He didn’t dare hold it out, certain the more lively horses would get it before she could take a step. He waited.
“Hey, Nyxie girl.” Charles crooned, trying to affect the nickname in the same loving drawl Arthur had used. Her ears swiveled forward. John let out a strangled breath, realizing who’s horse they were looking at.
“Charles.” John’s voice sounded far away, like he was speaking from inside a cave. “Is that Arthur’s horse?” As if speaking the name had lifted some kind of spell, Nyx took a step forward, eyes coming alive. She made her way to them, that leggy gait Arthur had always favored carrying her to the fence. She seemed sound, at least. Charles held out his hand, and she bumped the little pink spot on her muzzle against his knuckles in greeting before taking the treat.
Luckily, Nyx’s poor condition meant her seller was perfectly willing to negotiate with them, instead of insisting she go to auction. The man seemed confused by their interest until John’s my brother was riding this horse when he was murdered comment, something Charles would not have said, but ended up working in their favor.
“I got her off a homesteader up in Big Valley!” the man claimed, looking wary at two men with gunbelts and rifles maybe accusing him of something. He even had her papers, and they hadn’t been updated since 1899 — if there had been any doubt, that put it in the ground. Buyer: Arthur Morgan. Location of Sale: Valentine. Date of Sale: 06/02/99. Charles felt sick.
With Nyx ponying along beside Falmouth, the two men left Blackwater behind in a hurry. John asked him what to do as he pulled Rachel to a halt, and for a moment, he sounded just like the kid he’d been when Arthur hadn’t come back to camp.
“Take Nyx back to Beecher’s Hope.” Charles told him. “Give her plenty of food and water, keep her in the barn for now.” John stared at him, still looking half-panicked.
“Where are you going?” John asked. His face was hard, a storm brewing.
“I’m going to go to Valentine, and get Sadie.” Charles told him. They had started this... fight, this search, whatever it was...together, the three of them, back in ‘99. Maybe here, in 1908, they could finally end it. John reached out, grabbing Charles’s forearm tightly.
“Don’t you dare go without me.” He said. Charles nodded.
Sadie hadn’t needed much convincing, not that Charles had thought she would. She was packed and ready to go in minutes, Hera towering over Falmouth as they raced back to Beecher’s Hope.
“All them months of searching, all them O'Driscolls we killed.” Sadie began. “And the only real lead we got, you and John found on accident.”
“Yeah.” Charles answered. “What are the odds?”
Sadie laughed at that, dry and without humor. "I'm sure they ain't good. But I still look for him."
So do I.
Sadie and Charles rode up on the ranch with afternoon giving way to evening, shadows stretching long across the ranch yard. The sunlight at this hour was the color of blood, and Charles tried not to see that as an omen. They hitched up at the barn, Charles leading the way. He was certain John hadn’t left Nyx alone. He was proven right when they entered and there he sat, on a stool at her side. John jumped to his feet when they entered, wide eyed.
“Are we riding out now?” He asked, eager to go. Sadie shook her head.
“Big Valley ain’t that far, John. We don’t want to arrive when it’s getting dark. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” Sadie turned, ignoring any argument John could present and resting a hand on Charles’s shoulder as she passed. “I’ll see to Falmouth. Get some rest.” She told him, uncharacteristically gentle, before she left the barn. Charles had nothing to say that, frozen to the spot. He stared at John, who had returned to his stool beside the mare. She already looked happier, in the quiet barn with fresh hay and water. Mechanically, Charles picked up a brush and began brushing Nyx down.
"I already groomed her." John told him.
They rode out at dawn. The day dawned misty and unseasonably cold and damp, fitting for the day's errand. Uncle, Abigail and Jack saw them off from the porch. Abigail's eyes were wet with tears, and Uncle looked unusually sober. Charles couldn't decide what was worse — that, or the gleeful optimism on Jack's face.
"If you find Uncle Arthur, bring him back here!" He had said. Charles was grateful that was directed at John, not him. He didn't know how to be around kids, or what to say to them. He'd considered changing that, once, but any and all dreams of softness and domesticity lay in an empty grave to the north. He turned away from the little trio on the porch and led his own trio off, a proper war party. Or a funeral procession, a voice in his head drawled, sounding agonizingly familiar. Charles said nothing, to his companions or the voice in his head.
The horse dealer in Blackwater had told them it was a little house next to a cliff on the road to Strawberry. This house fit that description just fine, but it was painted a cheery blue and had flowerboxes and did not at all look like the home of a murderer, or bounty hunter, or enemy outlaw, or anything that would make any sense. There was a small garden out front and a rocking chair on the front porch. The three of them eyed each other in confusion, not sure how to play this.
"You two stay back, I'll do the talking. I'm the friendliest." Sadie ordered, taking charge. That got a snort from John, and she flipped him off over her shoulder but said nothing as she approached the door and knocked. The door opened and an older woman was there, her grey hair up in a bun and oversized glasses taking up most of her face.
"Yes? Can I help you?" She asked. Her voice was strong and clear, despite her age. Sadie took her hat off and held it in her hands.
"I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am, but we came quite a ways to ask you a question. You sold a black thoroughbred mare recently?" Sadie got to the point, and the woman nodded sadly.
"I did. Come in, come in, I'll tell you about her." The three of them were ushered into a small little cabin, just as cozy and quaint as the outside. "Sit!" The woman ordered, fluttering her hands in their direction. Charles did as he was told. This was not what he expected, but something in him felt cold, despite the harmlessness of the woman and the warmth in her home. She took a seat at the table as well, eyeing them peculiarly. "My name is Agatha Laine. I found that mare when I bought this house nine years ago now, back in '99." At the mention of that year, John and Sadie exchanged an uneasy glance. Charles just stared at the woman, waiting for her to get to her point. "May I ask what's so important about all of this, before I continue?" At her question, John cleared his throat.
"She belonged to my brother. He was — err, he went missing, back in '99. We never heard from him again." Agatha's eyes went wide at that, and she nodded, as if that answered a question for her.
"I moved her that year, as I said. The previous owner of this house was my son — he died, drove his wagon right off the cliff. I was living out in California and I decided I would take a change of scenery... hold on to what I could of him." She sighed. "The point is when I first moved out here, I took a lot of walks around, getting to know the area. There's another homestead up the road, up in Diablo Ridge — called Lone Mule Stead." The name felt... heavy, like all the light and air was sucked out of the room when she said it. Charles shuddered. "It's been long abandoned, even back then. The house is falling apart, but the cellar was bolted up real tight, which I thought was odd. That mare was tied up outside, and looked like she'd been there a while. Poor thing was going crazy trying to get free."
"And there was no one else there? No sign of anyone?" Sadie asked desperately.
"There looked like there'd been a camp of some kind, bottles and things around the place, but it was long abandoned either way. I took her home and I tried to work with her, but she never...settled. I don't know what happened to her, but it had to have been awful. The strangest thing, though, is over the years, she escaped my yard dozens of times. The fence isn't exactly built for horses, you know. She always went straight back there, pawing at the cellar doors."
"Did you ever open the cellar?" Charles asked quietly.
"Oh, no. I'm an old woman, and I was too afraid to go down there by myself." Agatha paused, peering at them. "Is she okay?" The woman sounded concerned, and that was enough to thaw Charles — just enough to stand, turning for the door. He turned back to the woman and answered her.
"I bought her. She'll be safe with me." Charles exited, ignoring the sounds of Sadie and John making their excuses behind him. They emerged from the house a few moments after. John had a saddle in his arms.
"Agatha said this was the saddle Nyx was wearing when she found her — the papers were in the saddlebags." Charles didn't spare the saddle a glance.
There had been a lockpick in the saddlebags. John used it to pry the cellar doors open. Charles and Sadie stood by with lanterns lit. The doors came open with the screech of disused metal on metal. The stone steps leading in the cellar were crumbled with age. John went first, followed by Sadie. Charles brought up the rear. He felt like a coward. All the years of not knowing, and wishing he had, and suddenly all he wanted to do was turn tail and run. He wanted to run back to Beecher's Hope — no, he wanted to run to Ambarino. To a pretty grave on the mountainside, with wildflowers blooming and a view of the sunset. He wanted to run back, somehow, to a herd of bison in the Heartlands, Arthur's smile and his blue eyes in the afternoon sunshine. He wanted to run back to a kiss stolen with no one present but the body of the man Arthur had killed for upsetting Charles. But there was no turning the clock back. Not from this.
"Oh, Arthur." Charles rasped, barely able to speak. There was nothing left but bones wrapped in what little remained of a union suit, but he knew from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet this was his Arthur. He realized he had known, all along, Arthur was dead. Nothing short of death would have kept him away. But being confronted with the grisly reality hurt — it was fucking devastating. Charles was no stranger to bodies, or death, but seeing Arthur reduced to little more than dust reached into his body and crushed something deep inside of him, grinding it down to nothing. Charles dropped to his knees at Arthur's side, reaching out. Even all these years later, he could see the damage that had been done. His collarbone was shattered, damage done by buckshot at close range. There were fractures everywhere, and the floor was stained with old blood. Some manic, detached voice in Charles wondered if they were the first people to open the cellar since the O'Driscoll's who put him here. He was vaguely aware of John and Sadie at the edge of his periphery... moving? Saying things? It didn't reach Charles. He reached out gently, resting his fingertip on Arthur's front teeth. It was the only thing that looked the same. He remembered those teeth biting into the flesh of his lip. Charles closed his eyes, not wanting to see it anymore.
It took a half a day to ride up to Ambarino, maybe less. They didn't bother to camp. Charles used his bedroll to wrap Arthur up gently, cradling him over his lap on the ride up. He had never had to dig the same grave twice. He was careful at first, pulling the flowers gently out of the soil and laying them aside before getting to the digging. John and Sadie tried to help, but he ignored them. The rise and fall of their voices washed over him like a soothing tide. Charles thought about the ocean. He wondered if Arthur would have liked to see it.
The grave — Arthur's grave — looked no different once they were done, but Charles thought it did. Before it had only been... a symbol, a desperate attempt. Maybe now we can finally find peace. Charles unsheathed his knife, pressing the tip into his palm. He remembered teaching Arthur how to skin bison. The knife bit into his palm, and he let blood run over the flowers. John and Sadie did the same, and Charles thought maybe he wasn't so alone.
They returned to Beecher's Hope. Sadie left after a few days, off the keep working her bounties. John threw himself into the ranch. Charles wrote a letter to Rains Fall.
John approached him one day after the morning chores were done, with a look on his face.
"What?" Charles asked. After everything, he didn't think anything could shock him now. John said nothing at first, eyeing Charles speculatively, and then he sighed.
"I can't bring myself to open this — we found it in that cellar, Sadie and I. With his guns and everything else. I think this belongs with you." Charles watched John apprehensively — he knew they had found Arthur's belongings, tossed in a corner by the O'Driscolls. The guns and other supplies had been divvied up between Sadie and John. The saddle hung in the barn. Charles hadn't wanted any of it. John had his hand around something in his satchel, but he paused.
"Close your eyes." He ordered. Charles quirked an eyebrow at him.
"Come on, Charles, humor me. It feels wrong to have this, even now." Charles shrugged and did as he was told. John pressed something into his hands, warm and smooth and deceptively heavy. Charles opened his eyes, and found himself speechless. Arthur's journal, oiled leather cover, sturdy canvas pages, stuffed with more extra papers than Charles had ever realized, clippings and photographs and newspapers and other things he couldn't identify, with Arthur's thoughts and drawings between the covers. Charles pulled it to his chest — he couldn't open it, not yet. But he would.
"Thank you, John. I..." Charles tried. Words failed. John shook his head.
"I know he loved you, Charles, without reading the damn thing. Keep it safe for him."